Saturday, September 6, 2008

New Information on FBI's Case Against Ivins from NY Times and the FBI Briefing of Aug. 18

Today's excellent NY Times piece by Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau reveals that Ivins as "sole custodian" of the RMR-1029 anthrax flask was a fiction. The flask was not always stored in Ivins' laboratory, but kept in another building at different times between 1997 and 2001, greatly increasing the number of those who had access to 200-300, and weakening the claim that access was controlled by Ivins. Furthermore, the FBI sent Ivins a formal letter in April 2007 stating that he was "not a target" of the investigation. And the FBI only took a mouth swab for DNA a week before Ivins died.

Careful reading of the August 18 FBI briefing transcript suggests that the FBI became suspicious of Ivins as a result of Ivins' first sample not meeting the requirements of their protocol, and his second sample not containing the expected 4 mutations. An unnamed official at the briefing stated, "
We had reason to believe that there was something wrong with the April submission. It didn't have these mutations, and so that caused the investigative team to say that it (sic) might be something more to this." In response to a question about when suspicion first turned to Ivins, FBI's Majidi reiterated what the unnamed official had said: "Investigatively, after we saw various mutations outside the RMR-1029, it all pointed back to RMR-1029, so the question became “Why are we seeing these mutations in these samples, and we know where they're coming from and why are we not seeing it in their origin?” '

Yet the FBI admits this behavior, initially deemed "suspicious," is now being called simply "questionable." And that the protocol for sample submission had not even been established at the time Ivins submitted his first sample. But later another official disagreed, saying Ivins had received a subpoena with protocol before he submitted a sample... yet his was the first (of 1,070 total samples) FBI received. Back in 2002, when Ivins' samples were submitted, the methodology to trace the anthrax origin by looking at
variable colony morphologies resulting from insertions and deletions did not exist, so Ivins could not have been specifically trying to thwart it.

The FBI said that all 8 of 1070 Ames samples that had the same 4 mutations as Ivins' first sample came from the RMR-1029 flask originally. How many others of the 1070 samples also came from that flask but lacked all 4 mutations? Choosing a different method to use, or seeking a different set of mutations, may have given a different result. It seems obvious that if a pure culture were obtained from the flask (one or even a few spores) it could not contain all four mutations, since each occurred in less than one per cent of colonies derived from samples in the flask. Might other scientists have submitted pure samples though their culture had an RMR-1029 origin as well? Did the FBI do its own collecting at all the labs with Ames anthrax? I don't think so.

Dr. Keim said during the briefing that Ivins' flask contained about a trillion spores (or enough to fill only half a Daschle letter, if he is accurate). But the flask contained a good portion of 35 separate production runs pooled from Dugway and Detrick. This makes it unlikely that sufficient anthrax to fill the letters could have been made in 3 to 7 days (time for only one or two production runs) using Detrick's standard equipment, as claimed by FBI, unless considerable additional equipment was used.

FBI started screening samples for mutations in 2004, but even then the repository of Ames samples was not complete. It would have been much more likely for someone who submitted a sample after the methodology was developed (in 2004) to attempt to hide his tracks, rather than the person who submitted the first sample (which did contain all 4 desired mutations).

During the briefing, Dr. Majidi implied that the method used to dry the spores was of no interest to the FBI investigation. He was asked if the method wasn't an important part of the evidence, and he said no, the important part of the evidence was relating the 4 mutations to RMR-1029! This reflects unwillingness to grapple with a critical part of the case: how the spores were prepared. Then again, Majidi claimed that there was no special preparation of the letter spores.

If the spores were not specially prepared, then the FBI should have had no difficulty re-engineering their precise preparation, and demonstrating the product to us. If FBI could not reproduce it, then the method by which it was produced is an even more essential part of the case to be solved, not dismissed. (BTW, various officials waffled over whether the spores had a charge, or not, during the briefing.)

In summary, when you read the entire FBI transcript, you are left with the impression that almost none of the questions raised by the scientists and journalists in the audience were answered satisfactorily.


Anonymous said...

It just keeps getting stranger by the day.

The NY Times revelation you citeiw, "the RMR-1029 anthrax flax... was not always stored in Ivins' laboratory, but kept in another building at different times between 1997 and 2001", raises any number of significant issues.

For example, exactly where was the RMR-1029 anthrax flask on the nights of Sept. 14-16, 2001, and on the nights of Sept. 28 through Oct. 5, 2001, (the nights the FBI contends Dr. Ivins was preparing the anthrax letters)?

Does the FBI even know?

Did Dr. Ivins access the other building (Building 1425), on any of those nights?

George Washington said...

Dr. Nass,

Fantastic essay. Keep up the great (and very important) work!

Elizabeth Ferrari / San Francisco said...

Meryl, I can't tell you how much relief I feel that two of the best reporters at the NYTs are paying attention. Better late than never, guys.

One caution: Arlen Specter has a habit of presenting himself as a contrarian and then, caving or complying with the administration later. And, one of his staffers when he was the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee was --- Jeffrey A. Taylor. I don't expect much from Senator Specter.

Thanks to the folks at Ft. Detrick who find a way to speak up.

Ellen Byrne said...

Thank you again and again for your outstanding work in this area. I am cetain reporters check your blog daily for your expertise and objectivity. You are an unimpeachable source.

Here's an article in today's Frederick News Post regarding the first Amerithrax suspect:

Anonymous said...

From the Times piece:
In the meantime, agents are continuing to conduct interviews with acquaintances of Dr. Ivins and are examining computers he used, seeking information that could strengthen the case.

Hopefully, those agents won't be blind to information that will exonerate Ivins, should they come across it.

Dr. Nass, thank you for the continued reporting on this matter.

Anonymous said...

Although much is made of the flask, it's not a strong piece of evidence against Ivins. All it proves is that Ivins (along with many other people) had access to the raw materials of the attack.

The only really incriminating evidence against Ivins are the late nights at the lab (assuming that it was physically possible to make the attack anthrax during these few hours, and without being detected). But the FBI knew about this since 2001, and only recently considered Ivins a potential suspect.

daedalus2u said...

I hadn’t realized that the “flask” purported to be the source of the anthrax held much less material than was sent, necessitating a growth step(s) to produce enough material for the various letters. To me, that calls into question the conclusion that the anthrax attack was a response to 9/11. Was there sufficient time between when 9/11 occurred and when the first anthrax sample was mailed (9/18) for the perpetrator to plan his/their attack, procure supplies, inoculate the culture, grow the anthrax, induce sporulation, collect the spores, process the spores into suitable format, put the spores in the envelopes, mail the envelopes?

I would think that would be extremely difficult if not impossible to do all of that in a single chronological week. Especially in secret without arousing suspicions of anyone. While seemingly maintaining otherwise normal work flow and habits.

Ivins would have no conceivable reason to try and do something like this on such a crash basis in response to 9/11. The only individual/group that could do something like this in a week would be an individual/group that already had at least 20 grams of anthrax spores lying around that they could play with and which would not be missed (to allow for some spillage).

Anonymous said...

daedalus2u, I agree that if Ivins is the perp, he must have started the work before 9/11. Filling the envelopes must have been done after 9/11, but any of the other steps could have been done before.

The scientific evidence can't nail down when exactly the anthrax was made - just that it was made no more than a couple years before the attack.

Anonymous said...

As for the career hedger political professional the Honorable Senator Specter, you can count on him to find the middle ground. Which in this day and age usually means caving in (but it didn't always). On another note...When asked about the chain of custody of the sample in question during the news conference, it becomes clear what the FBI's case would have been. Just do a control F and find custody in the manuscript and read on. There is no chain of custody. I believe Mr. Ivins probably succumbed to an incredible amount of pressure to commit suicide in order to save a failed case.